The Bear Goes Walkabout

Sat 3rd – Sun 4th August 2013

reviews

Florence Strickland

at 09:51 on 5th Aug 2013

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Piling three different operas into two hours seemed like quite a tall order. Despite the explanatory notes for the first two sections of ‘Red as Blood’ and ‘Bare’, it was quite difficult to grasp what was going on. However ‘The Bear’ presented clear direction and the crescendo of emotions in Chekhov’s original story. Overall it was quite difficult to gauge how to judge the two halves of the production where musical talent was evident throughout, however clarity was not.

Joel Rust’s composition called upon the bare Icelandic landscape of ‘Red as Blood’ from Njals Saga. The rasping dissonance complimented the dark tones of the plot, and the black magic that seemed to be involved. Helen Stanley as Hildigunnr presented her full soprano, which carried over the church in which we were sat – its acoustics lifting all the sounds conveyed. David Fearn’s beautiful voice as Hoskuldr was introduced, and fully exposed in his solo in ‘Bare’ as Edward Bardell, which allowed him to demonstrate its full potential. He gave an ethereal and graceful performance. Philip Ashworth’s score, in ‘Bare’, was brilliantly performed, including a violin solo that again was carried across the church with its remarkable acoustics.

There was a distinct lack of direction in the first two performances, and what there was seemed totally lost in its purpose. Kate Auster’s attractive set was irrationally crashed around, distracting from the orchestra. ‘Bare’ was slightly better in conveying its meaning. Notably, the direction in ‘The Bear’ was very good, making much of the dynamics between the hostile characters of Popova and Smirnov.

The set itself contributed to the running themes of family secrets, loss and vengeance. It is also the second time this Fringe that I have seen wardrobes inventively used as a way of coming on and off stage and introducing props. When done effectively – and with purpose - I appreciated the use of space in this way.

William Walton’s swirling score of ‘The Bear’ reflected the rage and anguish of the plot. Urszula Bock’s soprano voice as Popova has a technically spectacular style, picking out each note. A mannequin was used throughout to summon the absent figure of her late husband, reminding us of the purpose of her melodramatic mourning. Angus McPhee performed his character, Smirnov, from agitation to raging with animated style. There was humour in the interaction and growing relationship between the pair, enhanced at one point by Popova hurling around her husband’s letters.

As a whole, the musical element of this piece was its strength. It was a shame that the lack of clarity in storytelling in the first half brought down the overall impression of what was created. However, with a few directorial adjustments this would be a very impressive production.

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Imogen O'Sullivan

at 10:21 on 5th Aug 2013

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I can’t profess to be an opera lover. In fact, I can’t even profess to be an opera watcher. So as I walked into the Greyfriers Kirk church to the dulcet strains of violins tuning, I was filled with a mixture of apprehension and excitement at the prospect of this collaboration between Melos Sinfonia and Helios Chamber Opera.

The aim of Ella Marchment and Oliver Zeffman was to put on a trio of operas to showcase emerging talent. Joel Rust’s ‘Red as Blood’ opened the evening, but the melancholy tone of the piece got off to a slow start. The influence of the piles of wooden cupboards at the back was too great for how little they were used, and, whilst the bizarre puppetry technique of Sam Carl’s ‘Time Master’ was a nice idea, his interference in the action cluttered the stage, leading to clumsy scene changes. Whilst the church provided beautiful acoustics for the orchestra, particularly during the excellent oboe solo, it was not so forgiving on the diction of the performers. Helen Stanley’s voice is undoubtedly incredible, but it was impossible to make out any of her words under the reeds and reverberating strings. As the echoes of the orchestra slowly die away, I still had very little idea of what had happened in ‘Red as Blood’.

Phillip Ashworth’s ‘Bare’ immediately opened with life and energy, its scene changes thankfully far more integrated into the action. The histrionics of Stanley were entertaining, and whilst dancing in her dressmaker’s shop, she exuded sexuality. David Fearn as the cross-dressing Edward Bardell was extraordinarily compelling, every movement elegant and controlled. The ensemble pieces displayed great timing from all three performers, with the sinister vibrato drone rumbling underneath Henry Neill’s solo aptly hinting at the darker strains to this story. The energy of ‘Bare’ made it a pleasure to watch and the characterisations were uniformly excellent, helping the audience grasp the plot despite more problems with diction.

The headline act of this trio of operas was William Walton’s ‘The Bear’. Ursula Bock’s melodramatic sobbing was only outdone by the wailing of the violins, and the flamboyant gesturing of Sam Carl as Luka highlights his strong physicality and impressive stage presence. Angus McPhee’s consuming rage was beautifully childlike, displaying a great vocal range as he switched from rumbling fury to mocking sweetness. The interactions between Bock and McPhee were well choreographed and their French duet raised some laughs from the audience, despite its sinister undertones. The performers made the most of their intriguing chemistry revelling in comic moments of staging, particularly as McPhee’s sudden change in affection saw a gun-toting duel (all in the name of gender equality, of course) turn into a profession of love.

As a trio of operas, I never quite lost myself in the action, but the clear enjoyment of the performers had an endearing effect. Perhaps one for the opera lovers, rather than the opera dabblers, but I was struck by the incredible talent of the performers and musicians. ‘The Bear Goes Walkabout’ was an excellent introduction to the world of opera, it’s just a shame so much of the plot was lost in the acoustics of the vast church.

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